On the first weekend in March, sophomore Elizabeth Price will be competing at UCLA against the Bruins and the Georgia Gym Dogs, looking to lead the Stanford team to a spot in the collegiate national championship.
Meanwhile, former U.S. National Team teammates Gabby Douglas and Margaret Nichols will be competing on one of the largest international gymnastics stages in the world at the 2016 AT&T American Cup in Newark, New Jersey.
Just two years earlier, Price had won the all-around and three individual event titles at that very international competition, earning her the World Cup Series title and cementing her status as the No. 1 gymnast in the world.
One month later, Price won the all-around and two more event titles at the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championship in Richmond, Canada. There was seemingly nothing that could stand between Price and dominance of the world gymnastics stage.
After securing her spot at the top of the totem pole, Price shocked the gymnastics world when she ended her elite international career to accept a scholarship at Stanford, forgoing a trip to the 2014 World Championship and removing herself from consideration for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Instead of choosing to compete alongside Douglas and Nichols for one of five spots on the Olympic team and maintain her domination of world gymnastics, Price chose, much to the gymnastics community’s confusion, to pursue an NCAA championship, what most would consider a far less prestigious accomplishment.
It seemed as if Price couldn’t have left the sport at a worse time — she had the gymnastics world at her feet, and she let it go.
“I think it was actually the best way I could have left elite gymnastics,” she said. “I was leaving at the top of my game and I had nothing to lose.”
“I know a lot of people are like, ‘How is that possible?’ But honestly, it’s not my life goal to go the Olympics,” Price added. “I always wanted to do college gymnastics.”
For Price, gymnastics has never been her whole life. When she was eight, her mother forced her to make the tough decision of deciding between gymnastics and another sport that she loved dearly — football.
Price’s two younger brothers played in a flag football league and she would join in when they played backyard games with the neighbors.
“I was like, ‘Mom, I really want to play football,’ and my mom was like, ‘Well, I don’t care, but it’s either football or gymnastics and you can’t do both,’” Price said, imitating the conversation she often would have with her mother. “Obviously, I chose to do gymnastics but I continued to play football on the side.”
Football wasn’t the only activity that kept Price occupied outside of the gym. When she would come home from the gym, she skateboarded with her brothers, and on some of her free days, she snowboarded as well, much to her coaches’ disapproval.
“Back when I was in club gymnastics, our coaches didn’t want us doing anything but gymnastics,” Price said.
A fall on a skateboard or snowboard could mean a broken wrist and weeks away from training and competitions, but even when Price was an elite gymnast with the world championships and the Olympic team on the line, that never fazed her.
When Price was 12, she was practicing up to 40 hours a week, but even when gymnastics had come to take up all her time, she never let it define her.
When it came time to decide whether or not to defer her admission to Stanford to try for a World Championship or a second berth in the Olympics (she was the first alternate in 2012), she knew what she wanted and didn’t let others’ opinions change her mind.
Marta Karolyi, national coordinator for USA Gymnastics, and Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, both wanted her to stay elite for another year, but Price was ready for Stanford.
“I mean, gymnastics has always been a big part of my life, but I never considered it my life,” Price said. “I always wanted to go to college and do college gymnastics.”
“She’s a very confident young woman who knows who she is and knows what she wants,” said head coach Kristen Smyth. “No influence and no organization or anybody is going to try and encourage her to do something different than what she wants to do.”
It didn’t take long for Price to score her first perfect 10 in the NCAA. In Maples Pavilion against Oregon State on Jan. 26, 2015, just her fourth meet of her college career, she became the third gymnast in Stanford history to score a 10.0 on vault.
“It’s so hard to describe how you do something that’s considered perfect in the eyes of the judges, especially in gymnastics where the judges decide everything,” Price said.
Price performed a Yurchenko full twist and made it look easy, probably because for her, it was easy. Less than a year previously, Price had performed a Yurchenko two and a half twist at the AT&T American Cup where she won the event.
“I knew coming to college my routines would be cut in half,” Price said about the easier vault.
That wasn’t due to any regression on Price’s part; rather, it was more due to a difference in the emphases of elite and collegiate gymnastics. In college, judges pay more attention to detail, whereas in elite, while detail still plays a role, difficulty is much more important.
“All the tenths come from having that one pointed foot, or that one straight arm,” Price said. “Most people can’t see, but it’s hard to make sure you are able to make those details perfect in every routine.”
Price finished last year as the NCAA champion on vault with a score of 9.9333.
This year, Price has been named the Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week for the third consecutive week after having brought home her third all-around title in as many meets. Out of her 15 total events for this season, Price has won nine.
“Her gymnastics is just enormous,” Smyth said about the sophomore’s consistent domination. “Everything she does is just big, aggressive and confident.”
But Price isn’t just competing for the individual accolades: She puts in her best performances when her team needs a big score the most.
“I noticed the last couple of meets when we were having a little bit of trouble in the lineup and she was next they were even bigger and better performances than the usual,” Smyth said. “So it shows me that she really loves the team, puts the team first and gets even bigger and better in those moments where we really need her to step up.”
Price was a national team member from 2012 to 2014. She won the all-around at the Pacific Rim Championships and the AT&T American Cup. She traveled to London as the alternate for the 2012 gold medal-winning US Olympic Team. She won the World Cup Series title and was ranked as the No. 1 gymnast in the world.
But ever since Price was little, she always knew college gymnastics was what she wanted, and nothing, not even the Olympics or her status as the No. 1 gymnast in the world, was going to hold her back from performing in the NCAA.
“I never planned on really sticking around [elite gymnastics] because I had already accomplished everything that I wanted to do,” Price said. “When I was younger, where I’d see myself when I was 19 years old is exactly where I am right now: at college pursuing engineering as a gymnast.”
Price is majoring in biomechanical engineering with the hope of working to improve healthcare in the future. Specifically, she wants to simplify medical devices and make them more affordable and easier to maintain. At school, gymnastics is just something she does on the side.
Although it’s easy to say that Price peaked when she was 18, she says she’s just ready to focus on other, bigger goals that don’t involve gymnastics.
“I had already proven that I was a great gymnast. I had performed my best routines in front of some of the best people in the world and had represented the U.S. very well. So for me, sure the Olympics is great, but it [isn’t] necessarily that important that [I’m] going to put off another dream of mine.
“I mean, gymnastics just isn’t my life. It’s just a part of it.”
Contact Laura Stickells at lauraczs ‘at’ stanford.edu.